Too little, too late?

The new chief executive officer of credit agency Equifax EFX, -0.19% Paulino do Rego Barros, said Friday in an earnings call that the company will begin offering a new computer and mobile device service in January 2018. It will be free to all U.S. consumers “for life,” he said.

In the aftermath of the company’s data breach that potentially impacted more than 145 million U.S. adults, security experts recommended that consumers “lock” or “freeze” their credit files. Both processes prevent creditors from being able to access consumers’ credit files without their permission, in an effort to stop any attempts identity thieves might make to open credit cards or other accounts in their names.

The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but “freeze” is the term used in state laws, which guarantee consumers the right to restrict access to their reports, often for a fee, and “lock” is a term credit agencies themselves often use to promote services consumers have to pay them for instead.

Equifax didn’t immediately respond to MarketWatch’s request for more information about how the company will keep the data within the app secure. The company previously mentioned such a service was on the way

Consumers have credit reports at each of the three major credit agencies in the U.S., Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, if they have ever applied for credit. If they want to restrict access to those files, they must do so with each agency individually.

After Equifax’s breach, TransUnion offered a credit-locking service for free. TRU, +0.53% Experian EXPN, +0.31% did not offer a free locking service. (The company will “continue to review” consumers’ options to ensure “consumer-centric solutions are available that enable them to be safe in the credit economy,” a company spokesman said in a statement.)

Equifax eventually offered a free locking service, but the latest announcement appears to be an effort to make using it easier.

Many consumers have reported problems using each bureau’s freezing system, including long wait times to speak to customer service representatives or error messages on the agencies’ websites. Freezing and unlocking had to be done either by phone or on their websites. (Experian also allows locking and unlocking on an app and on Amazon Alexa, but using those services costs a monthly fee.)

Identity thieves could theoretically open a line of credit years after they take information such as consumers’ addresses and Social Security numbers.
Consumers were confused after the breach and felt angry and frustrated, said Rick McElroy, a security strategist at the firm Carbon Black. Some 75% of customers didn’t even try to lock or freeze their reports, or even check if their credit score had remained the same.

To encourage customers to actually use the new service in January, the company will have to double-down on the message that it’s easy to use, said Al Pascual, a senior vice president and research director at the security firm Javelin.

Identity thieves could theoretically open a line of credit years after they take information such as consumers’ addresses and Social Security numbers, so closely monitoring credit reports and locking them is still a good idea, he said.

Also, locking those reports doesn’t prevent against every type of theft, said Adam Levin, the chairman and founder of security firm CyberScout and the author of “Swiped.” Consumers should still monitor their insurance accounts and health records to be sure identity thieves don’t use their information to pay for medical procedures, he said.

And never give out personal information by phone or email. After breaches, identity thieves sometimes pose as legitimate organizations such as financial institutions, and ask for even more data.